legends John Kander and Fred Ebb’s production of “The
Scottsboro Boys” is here now in Beantown.
I was told that the framing devise of Boston’s SpeakEasy’s
current production of “The Scottsboro Boys” is a minstrel
show I was aghast. Employing a defunct and racist American theatrical
form - where black face makeup used by white performers is its
signature - to narrate a horrific travesty of justice, on surface,
you don’t expect it to trickle your funny bone nor to entertain
John Kander and his collaborator and lyricist the late Fred Ebb, have
pushed theatrical boundaries by subverting the minstrel trope to
highlight gearing forms of racism and discrimination in our judicial
trials of the Scottsboro Boys (1931 - 1937) is a painful story to
revisit, especially in light of today’s continued mass
incarceration of young African American and Latino men.
Kander & Ebb do a brilliant job satirizing the depiction of
African American life in the South in “The Scottsboro Boys”
that resonates so much with today’s racial tension no matter
where a black person resides in relations to the Mason-Dixon Line-
Down South like Scottsboro, Alabama or Up South here in Boston,
Scottsboro boys lived during the time of the minstrel shows
popularity performed by both black and white actors. However, while
white blackface minstrelsy and black minstrelsy shared the same
structural art form they differ vastly in meaning and intention. For
example, white blackface minstrelsy was both intentionally and
offensively racist whereas black minstrelsy turned racial caricatures
on their heads to highlight their absurdity with subtle cultural
markers and movements with nuanced and coded messages intended for
black audiences only. The blackface characters of Mr. Bones and Mr.
Tambo in minstrel performances historically play dimwitted unabashed
racists. In Kander & Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys”
the Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo characters are turned on their heads. “I
thought, let’s tip that over and have them play stereotypical
white characters,” David Thompson, librettist of the show told
“Playbill.” “In the show, Bones and Tambo play
cartoonish interpretations of racist, white law enforcement officers
and lawyers,” by black actors.
many the Scottsboro boys trials are long forgotten, and their lives
once exonerated were never repaired in the form of reparations or
recorded after prison.
Scottsboro Boys is about the imprisonment of nine teenage boys,
ranging in ages from twelve to nineteen, falsely accused of raping
two white women, a repeated racial trope in American history.
example, in 1989, The Central Park Five trial falsely imprisoned five
black and Latino teenagers for savagely raping (called “wilding”
at the time) a white female jogger, a Wellesley College graduate who
was then an investment banker at Salomon Brothers. Republican
presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump took out a full-page ad in the
Daily News calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty
in New York. But, the historic event that catapulted a new strategic
and more expressive phase of protest in the Civil Rights Movement
motivated by the Scottsboro Boys trials was the in 1955 lynching of
14-year old Emmett Till of Chicago in Money, Mississippi for
purportedly flirting with a white woman.
Scottsboro Boys trials is one of the early historical antecedents
that began to examine the systematic ways
America’s penal system harm and disadvantage individuals based
on race and class. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration
in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander introduces
readers to the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the U. S. stating
it’s “the most pressing racial justice issue of our
time.” And, the Black Lives Matter
movement has broaden the conversation about state violence by
campaigning against police brutality
and highlighting ways in which people of African and Latino descent
are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state as the
Scottsboro boys were.
there are parallels to be drawn between this infamous episode in
American history and events we see unfolding today, perhaps even more
so now than when the show debuted on Broadway in 2010,” stated
Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy founder and producing artistic director.
and Ebb’s use of satire is brilliant in “The Scottsboro
Boys” because it doesn’t sanitized difficult issues in
society we rather avert our eyes from. But rather “there’s
a wonderful tension in the theater because audiences are not really
sure how they’re supposed to react to the number,”
sort of tension is also seen in their musical production of
“Chicago,” a vaudevillian- style performance set in
during the Jazz Age satirizing crime and corruption, and “Cabaret”
which satirizes anti-Semitism in Weimar-era Germany.
held my breath through much of “The Scottsboro Boys”
because I was told about those teenagers - Olen Montgomery, Clarence
Norris, Ozie Powell, Willie Robertson, Charlie Weems, Eugene
Williams, Andy Wright, and Leroy “Roy” Wright- while
growing up in segregated Brooklyn in hushed tones of fear and
sadness. But at the end of the performance I got up from my seat and
applauded - the performers, Kinder and Ebb, and nine boys whose story
was finally told with dignity and justice.
would think a minstrel show would it.
show will run through November 26.